Above Marie Lake on the John Muir Trail.

Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail: The Ultimate, 10-day, Ultralight Plan

In Backpacking, National Park Adventures, Skills   |   Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,   |   10 Comments

By Michael Lanza

Are you planning to thru-hike the John Muir Trail? “America’s Most Beautiful Trail” should be on every serious backpacker’s tick list. After hiking it in seven days, I became convinced that—while that was very hard—the traditional itinerary of spreading the roughly 221 miles out over three weeks or more has a serious flaw: With limited food-resupply options, you’ll carry a monster pack that may not only make you sore and uncomfortable, it could cause injuries that cut short your trip.

In this article, I lay out my ultralight strategy for thru-hiking the JMT in 10 to 11 days.

Over the years, I’ve evolved from being one of those traditional, heavy-pack backpackers to traveling as light as absolutely possible, and the John Muir Trail is perfect for an ultralight strategy because of its generally dry, late-summer weather, well-constructed footpath, and moderate grades. Fit hikers who arrive with their legs in trail condition can knock off 20 to 22 miles a day—spending about 10 hours a day on the trail (including breaks) and averaging 2.5 mph, a reasonable pace for someone in good shape who’s walking with a light pack.

See more advice about planning a JMT thru-hike in the Make It Happen section of my story about our seven-day thru-hike, which has more photos and a video, plus tips on planning it.

You can also view just the video from my JMT thru-hike here.

 

At Trail Crest on Mount Whitney, on the John Muir Trail.

At Trail Crest on Mount Whitney, on the John Muir Trail.

Season A JMT thru-hike can be done from July through September. But the best time for an ultralight thru-hike is mid-August to mid-September, when—usually—the mosquitoes have abated and rain is rare (allowing you to use a tarp instead of a tent), the high passes are snow-free, and mornings are cool.

The Itinerary Fastpacking the JMT isn’t just for the lunatic fringe—ultralight hiking was born here. Our group found seven days doable but extremely hard. More reasonable is 10 to 11 days, because fit hikers capable of averaging 20 to 22 miles a day can, with early-morning starts, still avoid hiking during the worst afternoon heat—and critically, not carry more than five days of food. Here’s how:

•    Hike north to south—from Yosemite Valley to Whitney Portal—to gradually acclimate to the highest elevations.
•    Start early every day. Hike in the cool morning and evening hours, and rest during the afternoon heat. Knock off most of your day’s mileage by early afternoon. By going ultralight and not cooking, you’ll find that packing up camp takes just minutes. (See more about backpacking only with food that doesn’t require cooking in my article “Ultralight Backpacking’s Simple Equation: Less Weight = More Fun”)
•    Plan fewer miles on days when your pack is heaviest, and more miles when you’re traveling lightest.
•    Hiking southbound, the hardest and hottest climbs are to Mather Pass, Glen Pass, Forester Pass, and Trail Crest/Mt. Whitney. If possible, do these in the morning.

Permit Get a permit for the entire JMT from the park or forest where you plan to start, either Yosemite National Park or the Inyo National Forest (see below). JMT permits are in great demand for dates in July, August, and September. To hike the JMT southbound, apply for a permit from Yosemite National Park exactly 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of the date you’d like to begin—for example, apply on Feb. 20 to start hiking Aug. 20. Increase your chances by applying for a range of start dates in Yosemite. Permits for hiking northbound, starting at Whitney Portal, are reserved through a lottery system at recreation.gov; apply online between Feb. 1 and March 15. Find more info at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/jmtfaq.htm.

 

Get the right backpack for a hike like the JMT. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs
and the best thru-hiking packs.

 

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter, or enter your email address in the box in the left sidebar or at the bottom of this story. Click here to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Follow my adventures on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, and Youtube.

 

On the John Muir Trail overlooking the Cathedral Range, Yosemite National Park.

On the John Muir Trail overlooking the Cathedral Range, Yosemite National Park.

Minimize daily pack weight with this resupply plan:

•    From Yosemite Valley, carry only light hydration packs for the 22 miles to Tuolumne Meadows. Have your backpacking gear and food waiting there. Eat a big meal in the Tuolumne café.
•    At Red’s Meadow (800-292-7758 or 760-934-2345, redsmeadow.com), a short hike off the JMT, resupply for the next 50 trail miles either by having someone meet you there, or for a fee, mailing or delivering a package in advance. Eat a big meal at the Mule House Café.
•    Resupply a final time at Muir Trail Ranch (209-966-3195, muirtrailranch.com/resupply,html), about a mile off the JMT near the trail’s midpoint. Ship non-perishable food weeks in advance; a fee is charged.

 

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Not up for 20-mile days? It’s not for everyone, of course. Many hikers allot three weeks, a pace of about 10 miles a day. Maybe the smartest strategy for you would be something in between—say, 15 days averaging 14.7 miles per day. Experiment with backpacking longer days and traveling light on shorter trips before your JMT thru-hike.

Still, traditional backpackers can draw benefits from adopting strategies employed by fastpackers—including going north to south on the JMT. Besides giving you time to acclimate to the higher elevations of the southern Sierra, it gives you two resupply opportunities (Tuolumne Meadows and Red’s Meadow) to keep your pack lighter while building up your trail legs. And it gives you half the trip—prior to reaching the last resupply opp, Muir Trail Ranch—to gauge your food needs and daily mileage capabilities.

 

I can help you plan this or any other trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.

 

By that time, you may find you’re walking farther every day than you anticipated and eating less than planned—both realizations are common among people doing their first long trail, because backpackers often overestimate food, and the JMT is not, step for step, as difficult as hiking in other parts of the country. Give serious thought to food supply and daily mileage, because leaving Muir Trail Ranch with 10 or 11 days worth of food will add about 20 pounds to your pack as you head for the JMT’s highest passes.

 

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10 Responses to Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail: The Ultimate, 10-day, Ultralight Plan

  1. Garrett   |  January 7, 2018 at 6:40 pm

    Hi Michael:

    I saw your planner for the 10-day JMT hike a while back in early 2017. Did you take it down? I was hoping to get an idea of how you managed 10 days and hit up restaurants on the hike.

    • MichaelALanza   |  January 8, 2018 at 6:54 am

      Hi Garrett, the story above is my 10-day JMT planner. Let me know if you are instead recalling another story I posted about the JMT.

  2. Harry   |  July 18, 2017 at 8:59 pm

    Thanks for the column. Also the pdf with the list of campsites has been invaluable as I plan my hike. I’m planning on doing 10 days NOBO in September. Training my butt of now and am looking forward to the miles. Thanks again.

  3. Michael Pozner   |  July 13, 2017 at 1:09 pm

    hi, when you talk about not cooking, is there a work around for at least making coffee? Early mornings in the woods or mountains are best served with a nice cup of joe in my book 🙂

    Are fires not allowed at all? Are there any small light stoves you would suggest?

    • MichaelALanza   |  July 13, 2017 at 1:15 pm

      Hi Michael, no, I think the choice is simply between whether you want to leave the cooking kit behind in order to go lighter, or bring it and have hot drinks and food like coffee. I believe fire restrictions may vary between the different land-management agencies and could be implemented during times of high wildfire danger.

      See all of my reviews of stoves and cooking systems under this tag: https://thebigoutside.com/tag/backpacking-cooking-system-reviews/.

      Thanks for the questions.

  4. Susan Melcher   |  July 5, 2017 at 3:05 pm

    This is one of the top “to-do” thru hikes on my list. Love the idea of doing it in 10 days, which makes it an easier length to take off work!

    • MichaelALanza   |  July 5, 2017 at 3:23 pm

      Good for you, Susan. Remember to look into the earliest date to apply for a permit (depending on where you start). The 10-day plan will also feel like a longer trip, because you’re putting in long days. Good luck and let me know how it goes when you do it.

  5. Mike Small   |  June 28, 2016 at 11:35 am

    Great! Are dogs allowed on the trail?

    • michaellanza   |  June 28, 2016 at 12:03 pm

      Hi Mike, regulations regarding dogs vary between the different public lands through which the JMT passes. Contact the various agencies or look at their websites for answers, but I believe you’ll find that dogs are prohibited or permitted on if leashed in the national parks, and I’m not certain about the wilderness areas and national forests. Good luck.

  6. Drew   |  August 22, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    Very nice article! I’m looking to hike this next year and appreciate the suggestions.

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